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April 6th 2000

Sense and Sensibility
by Mitchell Longley
From Men's Fitness Magazine 1995
(Editors note: As of April 6th 2000--This is the original unedited version.)

There was a time when I could feel everything, from the just-out-of the-dryer warmth of my boxers around my thighs to the soft density of our carpeted staircase underneath my 17-year-old feet. Whether it was the sting of pebbles shot out from the lawn mower and hitting my bare legs or the smooth friction of wearing corduroys with no underwear in high school, I felt it all.

And then I fell asleep behind the wheel, smashed head-on into a stone wall and suffered a spinal cord injury. It happened 12 years ago, a few weeks before I turned 18. My diagnosis -- complete paraplegia at thoracic 12/lumbar 1, leaving absolutely no feeling or movement below my waist -- left little or no hope for future improvement.

Despite my grim reality, a coping mechanism I believe we are all born with kicked into high gear. I'd been through a horrible experience, but I was alive. During the months following my injury, I was surrounded by other people who had also been injured , only much worse. In fact, my two hospital roommates were paralyzed from their necks down as a result of auto accidents similar to mine.

Living under these circumstances provided a constant reminder of how truly lucky I was. I remember being the only one in my room who could dial a phone, hold a fork or get out of bed by himself. I appreciated the good fortune that spared so much of my body. I was alive, with perfect vision, a clear mind, and strong hands. This awareness created a healing gratitude that will remain with me forever.

More Than a Feeling 

Before the first week of physical therapy ended, the swelling around my spine subsided, taking pressure off certain nerves and allowing some feeling to return. It spread across my abdomen like a wild canyon fire before, teasingly, the winds of sensation shifted north and feeling below my midsection was gone once again. Doctors saw the fact that I could still get erections as a positive sign (needless to say, I didn't argue with them), and I even regained significant hip mobility, enabling me to ambulate with long leg braces and crutches.

Looking down from my dark hospital room onto Manhattan streets, I'd grab my erection with both hands, wondering if its sensation would ever return -- if I'd ever again feel the release of an  ejaculation or the utter joy of an orgasm.

Three months after my accident, I left the rehabilitation hospital and went home to Connecticut. Doctors told me that peripheral nerve regeneration may occur over time, but the medical consensus was that if I were to enjoy any future recovery, it would be minimal and take many years. Happily, the combination of imagination, slow nerve regeneration and patient work on my part have added up to welcome progress. Though it remains far from normal today, my sensitivity has indeed increased steadily.

That progress has come in many colors. Almost a year after the accident, my brother brought a puppy home for Christmas. One day the dog lost his balance while on my lap, and his back paws landed right on my testicles. What started as a slight, practically undetectable feeling grew into the deep-in-your-gut nausea that comes from having your gonads mashed. What a welcome pain that was! Nowadays, that kind of response occurs immediately.

A New Sensation

Throughout college, the changes in my condition baffled me. I'd detect a new feeling internally and not know where the hell it came from. At one point, I couldn't tell which cramp meant I ate too much, didn't eat enough, ate the wrong thing or had to go to the bathroom. Pinpointing them took years and involved some humiliating episodes, like the time I dropped a load in my drawers during a class my freshman year, or again in a bar after meeting two pretty ladies. Then there was the time when the stomach cramps I decided to ignore one night came back to haunt me, unaware, while I slept. It wasn't a pleasant sight.

Meanwhile, during summer breaks, I've developed the habit of swimming at a friend's house. They were rarely home, so I'd usually lose the bathing suit. My relationship with the water grew more intimate each year as its soothingly invasive property both brought out new sensations and heightened old ones I never would have noticed wearing trunks. Getting out of the pool, I'd lie on a towel and get blown dry by the air. It was an amazing process to feel, and soon enough I found myself hanging around outdoors naked every chance I got. Although friends would shake their heads and snicker, occasionally one or two of them shed their garb to share a warm breeze with me.

I've come to recognize other definitive sensations as well. Like having my underarm or hamstrings lightly stroked, feeling a tongue trace the curves of my ear or glide across my chest, closing my eyes while fingertips draw patterns on my face, feeling my hair dance over my scalp. Lately, I've massaged the feet of good buddies and witnessed its profound effect on them.

All too often, it's difficult for people to comprehend the immense and wondrous gift of sensation until they've lost it. How do you become more appreciative of what a shady tree in August offers your body, or more grateful for your cold feet being warmed by a winter fire? How do you even begin thinking this way? For starters, respect your body -- eat healthy foods, exercise, keep clear of such toxins as alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. And then open your mind to the world of your senses.

The sanctity of sensation is here for all of us to respect, honor and cherish. What is so natural and basic a part of existence should never embarrass us or make us feel ashamed. Responding to it simply makes life better, lessening inhibitions and increasing our gratitude.

Gratitude for what? For being alive.

Paralinks thanks Barbara Allen for passing this article on to us and to you! -Link

Entertainment and Dis?Ability  Mitch Longley

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